Mulberry Leaves - cover


Colloquy, Issue 5, 2001

Mulberry Leaves: New & Selected Poems 1970-2001

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

Over the past three decades Adamson's poems have returned and re-turned, almost obsessively, a handful of figures. Mulberry Leaves, a selection from his previous 13 books with an additional 31 new poems, shows that it is possible, nevertheless, to produce a work of intensity and resonance from scarce resources.

The poem 'Meaning' reminds us of some of those figures. It records the familiar experience for the poet of fishing, one assumes, on the Hawkesbury River. The strong sights and smells of his imagery are most often drawn from this landscape and its natural life: the mangroves, mudflats, birds, trees and of course, the river's inhabitants, mullet, mulloway, crabs, prawn, and oyster. In this episode, we find the poet drifting, physically and mentally, on a 'black summer night.' First registering sensual detail, 'no moon, the thick air/ drenched with honeysuckle and swamp gum,' he starts to look for larger sense in ink, 'a live squid/ squirts across the seats,' the 'night sky,' and his 'four-inch mesh' - some of the tools, in a sense, of his trade (270). The 'moon rolls out from the side of a mountain' and he decides 'to earn the rent':

On Friday nights I fork out comfort,
but tonight I work with holes, with absence.

I feed out a half mile of mesh pulling the oars;
This comes once a life, a song without words
A human spider spinning a death web (270-271; 18-22)

Fishing is no hobby for Adamson: his father and grandfather both made their living trawling the river, as he has done himself at times. From his earliest poems to the latest, this work has offered the poet images through which to examine and remember both his life and his other work, the poems. The lines, thus, are part of a self-portrait, but also give an account of his poetics. The image, then, tempts us with a straightforward analogy: the poet's work, like the fisherman's, is to catch the 'meaning' or truth of things, and the poem (language, figure, song) is the net he sets to do so. It may also tempt one to think that the 'meaning' of Adamson's poems is directly connected to his life experience, thus, that each may be understood simply by reference to the other. Neither, I suggest, gives an entirely adequate account of what is at stake in his poems.

For a start, Adamson is more interested in what sinks back into the darkness, what escapes through the holes in his net. His poetics, as such, is one of incompletion and silence, of never quite gathering in the catch, as the closing lines of 'The Shining Incidents' show:

I cannot reach, hands drift down through the moonlight onto the
outgoing tide. Morning surrounds
me silently, sun hitting driftwood,
dead roots and branches. (113: 4.34-38)

Negativity is one way to describe this poetics, which is ever conscious that the cost of the catch is death. Such is Adamson's revision of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been a constant feature of his poems. Fishing, at a stretch, is a version of Orpheus' luring Eurydice from the depths for Adamson, as the 'silver' fish who do get caught in his poems become representatives of her shining, but lost, presence. The story of the lovers can be read as describing our attempts to come to terms with mortality, or as expressing a belief in the persistence of song, even in death, but the prevailing Romantic and post-Romantic fashion is to see it as a myth of artistic origins. For Adamson - who, in one of his new poems, 'Reaching Light,' writes as Eurydice at the instant of Orpheus' turn to look back at her - it does indeed deepen his sense of poetic composition as negation, but the story also provides him with a template to re-cast everyday experiences of love, desire and loss.

The claim that Adamson's work simply and directly represents his personal experience fails to grasp the intricacies of his understanding of both experience and representation. 'Poetics' and 'life' are thoroughly and complexly intertwined in these poems and the figure that links them is 'entanglement.' One of the oldest poems in this collection - from Adamson's first book, Canticles on the Skin (1970) - contains an early version of the image presented in 'Meaning,' except that this time it is the poet's grandfather working the net:

I watch him at the stern of his boat
feeding out mesh, the corkline hissing softly, floating
across heaven, and his leadline dragging
the silt of hell (61: 14-16)

The poem's title, 'Through a trammel of lives' - a trammel being a kind of net - compresses several senses of the idea of entanglement. In one way, the title refers to a sense of the self as caught up in other lives. In this poem it is the lives of the poet's family that catch him, but elsewhere it is the lives of lovers, of poets, and the 'life' of nature. The sense of being tangled up in these other lives in this way can be negative. The constraints of his family's history are often starkly portrayed and the recollections of his childhood and family in Where I Come From (1979) and The Clean Dark (1989) are also often tinged with a raw violence. In these poems, death pervades almost every aspect of life. But the loss of self such entanglement in the past can involve has a positive side, primarily in ecstatic experiences of love and instants of revelation. Somewhat paradoxically, but utterly in keeping with his Orphism, such experiences may also be linked with death for Adamson. 'The gathering light,' a poem that records the poet's catching an 85 pound Mulloway, tells of one of these moments:

but here on the surface of the river
where I cradle the great fish in my arms
And smell its pungent death, a peace
I've never known before - a luminous absence
of time, pain, sex, thought, of everything
but the light. (269:19-24)

This moment of 'luminous absence,' fleeting as we know it must be, nevertheless is clearly prized as a rare escape from the 'trammel of lives.' The phrase also reminds us of the restrictions that bind experience in terms of culture, society and language. Adamson frequently addresses the strictures of cultural and social convention, and his sympathies are drawn to the 'rebels' and outsiders who resist them. The figure through which this theme is expressed is 'imprisonment,' and versions of it appear throughout the poems. But more importantly, the idea of entanglement informs Adamson's understanding of language and poetry.

On the one hand he writes from the perspective that language mediates and so, ultimately, restricts experience. Informed by negativity, his spiritual goal is a 'luminous absence' beyond thought, beyond representation and beyond words. On the other hand, as a poet, he cannot afford to abandon language or representation so quickly. Thus, we find Adamson struggling to wrest his song and his sense of self from within the net of language and convention. The struggle has inclined him toward more experimental verse and even, more recently, to parodies of such poetries - but to my reading, these are distractions. Adamson's better poems are those that remain caught up in lives, experience and language while remaining attentive to the risks and demands of each. In these poems, Adamson's longing to sink back into the darkness is met by a desire to rise up to the world of the senses and light: it is the tension between them that makes his work so lyrical, 'so human.'

This article reprinted from the Colloquy website, with permission.
© Monash University 2000